Q: Why do we call a single item of clothing "a pair of pants"? -- Charlie Duncan, Potsdam, N.Y.
A: Being an average guy, I'll put on my answer one leg at a time.
English speakers use plural words for most garments worn over the legs, e.g. trousers, shorts, tights, drawers, knickers, leggings, trunks, pants (a contraction of "pantaloons," ...Read more
Did you know there's a guy in your guppy? A fella in your salmonella? A boy in your boycott?
The guppy was named for a man whose full name was longer than the fish itself: Robert John Lechmere Guppy (1836-1916). Raised in a 13th-century Norman castle in England and shipwrecked as a young man off New Zealand, Guppy eventually landed as the ...Read more
In case you get stuck in an airport screening line this summer, bring along one of these fascinating new books on language and you'll literally be able to read it online.
Headed to a foreign country? Bring along "Are Some Languages Better than Others?" by linguist R. M. W. Dixon (Oxford University Press, $40). Dixon addresses the provocative ...Read more
Let's start with the good news. I've been spotting fewer of these Styrofoam cups polluting the river of English: "curate," "iconic," "artisanal," "double-down." But a small navy of other plastic bags and cigarette butts is floating in their wake:
--Legacy has legs: I have no problem with the noun "legacy," though, Lord knows, we're going to ...Read more
Call it political names-manship.
Commentators have been whacking away at Donald Trump's last name as if it were a big, fat pinata, and they've gleefully relished the nefarious meanings spilling out: to "trump up" means to fabricate; "trumpery" refers to worthless junk; "trump" may be a source of "strumpet"; and, in British slang, "to trump" ...Read more
In case you haven't heard, the State of Connecticut has struggled to negotiate its budget during the past few months. In fact, the process has resembled a can of worms being shot from a loose cannon in a sausage factory.
But no one knew that this street brawl would provide a spring torrent of delightful mixed metaphors -- torturous figures of...Read more
Why do we tell kids to "pipe down"? Why do we say food is "piping hot"? Why do we call fantasies "pipe dreams"?
Discovering the origins of these "pipe" terms takes us on a quirky voyage from oceans to ovens to opium ...
--Pipe Down: On old sailing ships, the "boatswain" (or "bosun") used a small, whistle-like pipe to communicate orders to ...Read more
Q: I'm trying to figure out whether the preposition "from" is needed after the verb "forbear." Is it "he will forbear from growling at him," or "he will forbear growling at him"? -- Peter Hufstader, Avon, Conn.
A: There's no need for growling here, for this is one of those delightful situations in which either choice is correct. So we can say...Read more
Q: Is this a run-on sentence?: "The thing I liked about Andy Rooney is that he didn't just play a curmudgeon on television, he was one." -- Shelley Cetel, West Hartford, Conn.
A: Grammatical purists would call this a "comma splice" -- a comma erroneously used to join or "splice" two independent clauses. They would replace the comma with a ...Read more
"Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would likely be heavily engaged in reigning in Wall Street."
When I encountered that sentence in a newspaper story, I conjured the absurd vision of Sanders and Clinton wearing crowns while ringing the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
The intended verb, of course, is "reining in," meaning "...Read more
Today, some random notes from the Word Front ...
--"Conversation" sensation: People don't discuss or debate a topic anymore; they have a "conversation." They "start the conversation." They "frame the conversation." They "join the conversation." And if they're open to discussion, they're "happy to have that conversation." I'd be happy to have ...Read more
Latest anti-aging cream erases 15 years of lines in just 1 minute. Botox doctors are outraged by the breakthrough! Hollywood celebrities are secretly using this cream to maintain their youthful looks..
Q: In a recent newspaper article on a criminal case involving an issue of missing records, a judge is quoted thus: "But in this case, the trout is just not in the milk. The recordings are just not in the files." The expression "the trout is just not in the milk" is new to me. Any notion of the underlying reason for this expression?" -- Tom ...Read more
Q: How did the high-heeled shoe for ladies become known as a "pump"? -- Melanie via email
A: Asking me about a type of women's shoe is like asking a Muscovite about surfboards. True fact: Until I was around 40 years old, I didn't know the difference between a dress and a skirt. And women's shoes? Let's put it this way, I'm no Carrie Bradshaw....Read more